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"The best addiction memoirs reflect on the running and gunning with just the right amount of thoughtful remove, which is exactly what makes James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries so important. The title is deceptive in that there’s nothing diary-like about it: No diary could be this elegantly crafted and tightly woven. Structured as a series of standalone vignettes, the book has more than enough material to justify a woe-is-me stance—an arsonist mother and suicidal siblings, to start with—but a clear-headed voice that mines the subject matter of regret while refusing to ever wallow keeps the narrator out of self-pity. Underread and underrated, Brown’s vibrant imagery and nimble storytelling elevates The Los Angeles Diaries into a league all its own." —The Fix, selected as one of the Ten Best Addiction Memoirs
“The Los Angeles Diaries is one of those rare memoirs that cuts deeply, chillingly into the reader’s own dreams. It is a dramatic, vivid, heartbreaking, very personal story of human responsibility and guilt, of alcoholism, of suicide, of marital struggle, of the uncertainties and ambiguities of a writer’s life in modern America. The book is cleanly and beautifully written, and it’s also incredibly moving.” —Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried and winner of the National Book Award
“The Los Angeles Diaries is terrific. It’s one of the toughest memoirs I’ve ever read, at once spare and startlingly, admirably unsparing. It glows with a dark luminescence. James Brown is a fine, fine writer.” —Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“This gemlike collection . . . materializes in such delicate strokes that the emerging theme becomes one of almost miraculous forgiveness, any pain and rage all but hidden between the lines.” —San Francisco Chronicle (Best Books of the Year)
“Profound . . . unsparing and clear-eyed, a heartbreaking story, and yet oddly inspirational, the tale of the last man standing.” —Janet Fitch
“Life-affirming . . . An extraordinarily gripping, honest, and somehow uplifting tale. It seamlessly moves from bleak to beautiful . . . A darkly bright, hugely compassionate, and oddly redemptive story of loss and failure, guilt and addiction.” —The Independent
“As tragic as Brown’s life has been, the memoir displays neither pathos nor self-pity but elegiac wisdom . . . How moving is Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries? While double-checking the quotes and facts, I simply gave in and reread it again, struck even more by its pain, its beauty and its craft.” —Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
“It’s the balance of agony and grace, of course, that makes life so ferociously interesting. Brown has perfectly captured that balance in this unpretentious, very profound book.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“Novelist Brown (Lucky Town; Hot Wire; etc.) mines the explosive territory of his own harsh and complicated life in this gut-wrenching memoir . . . Brown’s genius compels readers to sympathize with him in every instance. Juxtaposed with the shimmery unreality of Hollywood, these essays bitterly explore real life, an existence careening between great promise and utter devastation. Brown’s revelations have no smugness or self-congratulation; they reek of remorse and desire, passion and futility. Brown flays open his own tortured skin looking for what blood beats beneath and why. The result is a grimly exquisite memoir that reads like a noir novel but grips unrelentingly like the hand of a homeless drunk begging for help.” —Publishers Weekly (Best Book of the Year)
“Brown’s blackout days make for a darkly alluring read. This is the kind of book that becomes an underground classic for all the wrong reasons.” —Booklist
“A riveting read. A supremely powerful and depressing memoir, then, one that seeks to evoke and express—rather than in any way explain—the misery that engulfed one ambitious American family.” —Kirkus
“The ‘Kennedy curse’ looks like a garden-variety hex compared with the dysfunction passed down among Brown's alcoholic clan. When the acclaimed Lucky Town novelist was 5, his embezzling mom dragged him along to an arson; both his siblings committed suicide in middle age; Brown himself abandoned his wife, kids, and college English students for days to binge on booze and meth. If that’s not bleak enough, consider this memoir’s really depressing scenes . . . Hollywood script meetings. It’s all riveting and self-pitiless, but two passages are priceless: a devastating imagining of the post-recovery shame that led his sister to dive into the bone-dry L.A. River, and his nightmarishly funny battle of wills with a potbellied pig that was supposed to salvage his marriage but instead helped demolish it.” —Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly
“This is a ghost story, and James Brown should be dead. That he is not is a remarkable tale of perseverance in the face of staggering loss and tragedy.” —Charles Feldman, CNN
“Remarkable . . . Rises above the commonplace to the true art of comprehended pain . . . the hallmark of Brown’s prose is gravitas. His truths are definitive.” —DeWitt Henry, The Boston Globe
“Searing, gut-churning but ultimately luminous . . . The Los Angeles Diaries reads like the best—and darkest—fiction . . . Uncompromisingly bleak yet surprisingly beautiful, a passionate testament not only to how one can survive what should shatter and sunder irreparably, but that one can survive and in surviving, begin anew.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Each chapter shows the tool marks of the well-crafted short story, carefully and even lovingly shaped and polished until it shines . . . The stories amount to a memoir of stunning intimacy and unforgettable impact.” —Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The book is a classic, deeply moving and expertly crafted.” —Sydney Morning Herald
“Vivid, shocking and funny . . . a darkly bright, hugely compassionate and oddly redemptive story of loss and failure, guilt and addiction.” —London Independent on Sunday (Best Books of the Year)
“A stark, affecting memoir about a writer seeking to comprehend and overcome his demons.” —Sunday London Times
Daily Rushes 41
My Papa's Waltz 55
The Facts 61
Personal Effects 117
On Selling a Novel to Hollywood 137
A Fine Place 147
South Dakota 195
Winter is the season of the arsonist in Southern California. The manzanita and chaparral are dry and brittle and the Santa Ana winds have begun to blow. They move at gale force. They cross the arid Mojave and whip through the canyons of the San Bernardino Mountains, through the live oak and the pines, the ponderosa, the sugar and coulter, white fir and incense cedar. I know these names because I live in these mountains, eighty miles east of the sprawl of Los Angeles, and I worry when the winds come. I worry about the possibility of fire. I know he's out there, the arsonist. I know he's waiting, like me, for a day of opportunity very much like this.
I've seen the Santa Anas uproot trees. I've seen them strip roofing from houses and shatter windows. I've seen them topple big rigs, and once, along the same freeway I'm traveling now, I saw a stop sign flying through the sky. I keep a firm hold on the wheel. The winds hit in sharp gusts and can blow you clean over the line. You have to be ready. You have to hang on tight and keep your eyes on the road.
Traffic moves slowly, carefully. No one's taking any chances, making abrupt lane changes, cutting you off or tail-gating. I would like to believe that it's courtesy that dictates our caution, our good manners, except this is Southern California, I grew up here and I know better. Danger or its potential sometimes brings out the best in us, and I wonder, as I reach to turn on the radio, if maybe it would be a good thing if the Santa Anas blew every day all year-round.
From time to time I find myself having to drive into Los Angeles on business, and just the thought of it always fills me with a sense of dread and anxiety. The city has changed and grown immensely since I knew it as a child, and sometimes even the most familiar streets, streets I grew up on, seem barely recognizable. Gated communities have replaced the bungalows and tract homes and the signs in the windows of the shops and stores are in Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, occasionally Arabic. Where corner markets once stood you'll now find minimalls, and Hollywood landmarks, places like Schwab's and Pandora's Box and the old Brown Derby restaurant, have gone the way of the bulldozer. There are more freeways, too, bigger and wider ones, but the traffic has never been worse.
But it isn't the unfamiliar that makes me anxious. It isn't the traffic or the crowds or the evolving landscape of architecture and ethnicity. I am a fiction writer who doesn't make enough money at it not to have to do something else for a living. So I teach. So I am a professor. And what Hollywood offers me is the chance to escape the classroom and tell stories full-time. Trouble is, I'm not very good at telling stories that pay better and that's what this is about. It's what it has always been about: my driving into Hollywood to talk to producers and executives who like my work but want me to write something more commercial. In this case that less commercial work is my last novel and the screenplay I wrote based on it, a screenplay commissioned by Universal and Amblin, both of whom passed on it when I was done. "I don't know why you ever bothered to write this," an executive tells me, after she finishes reading my script. "It's no movie. It's too real." Now the rights are mine and my agent, who feels differently than the executive, is sending it to other executives and producers in Hollywood. As a sample, he calls it. The idea is not so much to sell the script as it is to sell myself as a scriptwriter. Already I'm looking forward to the end of the day.
The Santa Anas die down as I approach Los Angeles and I ease up on the wheel. I take a deep breath. But I know it's only temporary, this calm. I know better than to let myself relax. That thing called the L.A. River borders the last stretch of the freeway into Burbank, and I look out on it, the dirty water, moving sluggishly through the narrow concrete channel that contains it. Over the rush of the cars I try to imagine it as I was told it used to be, a real river, filled with trout and salmon and lined with sycamores and willows instead of chain-link and barbed wire. But I'm not successful. I think about my brother. I think about my sister. We are children down by that river on a day very much like this with the wind blowing lightly and the smell of fire in the air. I'm nine years old, the youngest, and we're passing a bottle around, a bottle I've stolen from a grocery store nearby. My sister points to the sky.
"Look. Look," she says. "Snow."
Only they're ashes. Ashes are falling. Ashes are everywhere, and in the sunlight they appear white, almost translucent. My head is spinning and I laugh. My brother laughs. I can hear us all laughing as we look to the sky, opening our mouths, catching ashes, like snowflakes, until our tongues turn black.
In the rearview mirror I check to see if my eyes are clear. They are, and they should be. I've gone without a drink or a drug for four days, four long miserable days of white-knuckling it, all because I want to look my best, and I like to think I do ...The Los Angeles Diaries
Shocking, bleak, and ultimately elegiac, The Los Angeles Diaries chronicles a legacy of addiction, life-shattering tragedy, and the arc of the author's own difficult career as a writer, in an elegant series of twelve interconnected chapters. Written with neither anger nor self-pity, Brown's memoir ranks as one of the most harrowing to emerge in this genre.
As a five year old, Brown waits in the car while his mother sets fire to a building, setting off a chain of events that permanently unravels his comfortable, stable family. Brown watches all the certainties of childhood disappear with her subsequent imprisonment. Thereafter, tragedy follows him like a brushfire spread on the Santa Ana winds. Nimbly emulating his elder sister and brother, Brown escapes into heavy alcohol and drug use. Brown gently and elliptically describes his brilliant brother, a man of rare intelligence and a promising acting career, who shot himself at the age of twenty-seven. Brown's sensitive, shy sister hangs on until her forties, when finally, after a lifetime of disappointment and cocaine fueled benders, she leaps off a highway overpass onto the concrete below.
The only sober and sure thing in his life that keeps Brown going is his writing, between his own days and weeks of drinking and drugging. He writes with the knowledge that every idea, every script meeting, every chance at a screenplay bought or novel sold, might be his last.
Brown draws this brutally honest picture with delicate strokes, revealing his story in fragile, fragmented episodes tinted with dark humor, compassion and an almost miraculous forgiveness. In "Midair," he addresses his sister directly in an open letter, a confession, as he imagines her last moments. In "Daisy," Brown's peace-offering gift to his wife, a pot-bellied pig, chews through five novels-in-progress, and this "manuscript massacre" unleashes a hilarious battle of wills between man and pig. In "The Facts," Professor Brown faces his Monday morning undergraduate English class, desperately trying to conceal the tremors and sweats that arrive on the heels of yet another weekend spent holed up in a seedy motel, drinking and snorting drugs.
Los Angeles figures prominently in these vignettes, a character in its own right, a mirage of hope and folly, as the Brown family helplessly stumbles toward ruin. The sole survivor of his family, James Brown finally finds redemption under the open skies of South Dakota, where he realizes that he must "change or die."
Questions for Discussion
About the author
James Brown is the author of four previous novels. He lives in Lake Arrowhead, CA.
Posted March 1, 2014
I have always loved this book. I read it in my undergrad and I've recently picked it up again. The main character tries to make us believe that he is remorseful for his actions yet under all the booze and drugs you can't help but to think he likes this life. An amazing read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 11, 2010
When I purchased this book I started to read the first page in the store. Next thing I know I'm half way through and the store is closing. Well written to the point of absorbing. Rather dark, but not emotionally difficult to read. Perhaps this is a sign that I should stop reading celebrity/politician memoirs and start reading ones that are written by writers. I'm very much looking forward to the next book!! I wish it was out already!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2008
Brown does a great job of truly immersing the reading in his world. His book is gripping, heartbreaking and even humorous at times. I found myself struggling along with him as he takes us, as readers, through the many struggles throughout his life. I¿ve seen many people in my life fall victim to drugs and alcohol, and this book helped to see it from their side and how hard it really is to get clean. The suicides in his family hit close to home and I found myself in tears. Great book, written beautifully, with a range of emotions. I had the pleasure of having him as my professor for a quarter and will take him as often as I can. It¿s refreshing to have a writing professor who really knows the craft and the up and downs that come with being a writer. Great writer and great professor!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2007
The Los Angeles Diaries:A Memoir is like watching a train wreck that you cannot seem to turn away from. This painful , gut wrenching memoir is told only as a true alcoholic / drug addict could know. Brown has experienced chronic maheim only to survive while those around him have perished. Depressing, motivating and above all inspirational as no human being is required to still stand after such substance abuse. Not for the timid....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2003
This harrowing account of James Brown's struggle with alcohol and drugs should be required reading for recovering addicts. In remarkable, startling and beautifully-crafted vignettes, the roots and eventual flourishing of Brown's dependency on booze and chemicals seems as inevitable as the sunrise. But, unlike many of his loved ones, he survived to tell us what it means to 'come to rest at a moment of beginning.' It took a brave man to write this memoir. Are you brave enough to read it?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 2, 2011
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Posted October 26, 2008
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Posted April 5, 2011
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Posted October 1, 2012
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Posted October 9, 2011
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